Monday, 1 October 2012

Ring of Power

Ring of Power
Why is Lord of the Rings so popular?

Review of Patrick Curry, Defending Middle-Earth. Tolkein, Myth and Modernity (1998)

The publication of The Lord of the Rings more than forty years ago was greeted with cries of derision by the literary establishment. Nevertheless, sales have topped 50 million copies, and are still going strong, with public library lending total exceeding 300,000 per year. Despite the book’s steady popularity – it headed a poll of over 25,000 readers as the most important book of the twentieth century – it continues to be shunned by the “clever” world of adult literary fiction.
The popular success of The Lord of the Rings lies in its relevance to the contemporary struggle of “community, nature and spirit against the modern union of state-power, capital and technology”. Noting the “domination of financial and technological magic” over “God’s enchanted world”. Curry concludes that root-less science, existing beyond history and locality, becomes inseparable from science and power.
Curry has arranged his book around the three interrelated worlds of the Shire, its culture, politics and society, Middle-Earth, its nature and ecology, and the spiritual and ethical world of the sea. Each “world” is inextricably intertwined with the others, creating a powerful sense of specific and recognizable place. In Curry’s view, by setting the Shire in pre-modern England Tolkien gives his tale universal appeal. Itself not “Europeanized”, the Shire is invaded by modernizing Mordor. Within the state, the Hobbits who share a strong sense of community and of decentralized bioregionalism resist.
Although he omitted specific reference to religious practices, Tolkien perceived The Lord of the Rings as “a fundamentally religious and Catholic work”. Curry argues that decisions based upon pure utility yield the centre ground to the forces of destruction: “the things, places and people we love will be saved for their own sakes or not at all; and that is ultimately a religious valuing.”
“The choice”, Curry observes, is between myths and stories that are liberating, and those that are destructive and debilitating.” The Lord of the Rings emerges as a major contribution to the former. Tolkien’s purpose was to challenge the myth of “progress” from primitive squalor to global civilisation based upon science and technology. His work echoes the ancient mythologies of a fall from a past golden age. It also rejects the inevitability of “progress” in favour of a belief in individuals as free agents capable of determining events good or ill.
Tolkien’s mythology contains hope for “the re-sacralization (or re-enchantment) of experienced and living nature, in the local cultural idiom”. Escape from the prison of enforced modernity is presently barred by its ”intellectual and cultural warders…the realists and rationalists” who declare “progress” is not only good for us, but also here to stay regardless of the trail of devastation left in its wake. The fatal charm of the Ring of Power leads its servants to feed it, rather than control it.
The book presents no simplistic division between good and evil: “one of the glories of Middle-Earth is its messy pluralism.” People with very different cultures, languages and habits, linked in a tenuous alliance, oppose the modernistic magic which is Mordor. Writing under the shadow of the “ongoing holocaust of the natural world” in the name of global capitalism, Curry quotes Ruskin:
“To watch the corn grow, and the blossom set: to draw hard breath over ploughshare or spade; to read, to think, to love, to hope, to pray – these are the things that make men happy; they have always had the power of doing these, they never will have the power to do more. The world’s prosperity or adversity depends upon our knowing and teaching these few things: but upon iron, or glass, or electricity, or steam, in no wise.”
Curry suggests that the Ring has affinity with the most powerful economic and political forces in the material realm. Three Elven Rings, capable of creating beauty, understanding and healing are ultimately under the control of the One, which can transform and destroy their potential but is devoid of ability to create. The magic of the One Ring is its capacity for illusion. Evil, the lust for complete power in the world, arises from apparently innocent intervention in life in all its forms. In Tolkien’s works, “frightful evil can and does arise from an apparently good root, the desire to benefit the world and others – and speedily according to the benefactor’s own plans”, This magic has been appropriated and transformed by modern science and technology.
Curry reminds us not only of the dangers of abandoning the lessons of history, as encapsulated in myth, but also of the good sense and good faith of the vast mass of ordinary people and the capacity of small individuals to stand against great evil.

This review was first published in Resurgence, No. 196, September/October 1999. Patrick Curry's book remains as relevant today as when first published. Frances Hutchinson

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